Saturday, November 14, 2015

Shadows In A Timeless Myth Presents The Great Ladies of Eighteenth Century England

After the turmoil of the Stuart period was over, and the country had settled down under the rule of the dull Hanoverians, social life in England assumed a new form. The circles of the great ladies who now come into prominence, partly through their wealth and dignities, but more on account of their qualifications as leaders of society, eclipse the circles gathered in royal palaces. Until the eighteenth century society consisted of factions. There was a court party and a party strongly opposed to the court; there were court beauties and favourites, duly hated by the opposite set. In London there were mansions where revels were held by great families, but there was no cohesion among the scattered elements of London life. It was only in the seventeenth century that it became fashionable to keep a town as well as a country house, or rather to spend the winter in London in a house hired for the season, which then included the darkest and coldest months in the year. London was only just beginning to be made the centre of all that was most brilliant in social life, and society’s leaders were still, for the most part, performing their functions at their country estates.

But in the eighteenth century London has its well-established social circles, which take the lead in all matters of fashion and taste, having first acquired the tone from Paris. It was in the second quarter of the century that the question of taste was always uppermost in polite circles, according to Lord Chesterfield.
“Taste,” he writes, “is now the fashionable word of the fashionable world. Everything must be done with taste; that is settled, but where that taste is is not quite so certain, for after all the pains I have taken to find out what was meant by the word, and whether those who use it oftenest had any clear idea annexed to it, I have only been able negatively to discover that they do not mean their own natural taste, but on the contrary, that they have sacrificed it to an imaginary one, of which they can give no account. They build houses in taste, which they cannot live in with conveniency; they suffer with impatience the music they pretend to hear with rapture, and they even eat nothing they like, for the sake of eating in taste. Eating, itself, seems to me to be rather a subject of humiliation than pride, since the imperfection of our nature appears in the daily necessity we lie under of recruiting it in that manner, so that one would think the only care of a rational being should be to repair his decaying fabric as cheap as possible. But the present fashion is directly contrary; and eating now is the greatest pride, business, and expense of life, and that, too, not to support, but to destroy nature.”
There was certainly a want of taste in the language used by great ladies, whose speech was often so coarse as not to bear repetition. One day the Duchess of Marlborough called upon Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chancellor, incognita. When the clerk went in to the Chancellor to announce the visitor, he said: “I could not make out, Sir, who she was, but she swore so dreadfully that she must be a lady of quality.” The substance of ladies’ talk was also open to censure. Writes Swift:

“Or how should I, alas, relate The sum of all their senseless prate, Their Inuendo’s, Hints, and Slanders, Their meanings, lewds, and double entanders! Now comes the general scandal charge. What some invent the rest enlarge.”
Expressions then in common use among ladies would not be tolerated now in decent society. In their intercourse with men they were more restrained, at least in writing, but the attitude of the sexes towards each other was one peculiar to the age. There was so much affectation of gallantry on the part of the men, and such a want of straightforwardness on the part of the women, that the whole tone of society was thoroughly artificial. Between the wits, statesmen, men of letters, and the great ladies of their acquaintance there was a romantic kind of relation worthy of the days of chivalry. The elaborately framed protestations of devotion to which women were generally quite ready to listen belonged rather to feudal romance than to real life. But the romance of the eighteenth century was tinctured with the spirit of banter, and both sides were well aware that the whole thing was merely put on, like the powder and the patches. So general was this playing at sentiment that when real feeling for once in a way tried to get the ascendant it was unable to obtain credence.

The fashionable dames of the eighteenth century loved to dabble in politics, which afforded a fresh excitement when the social round began to grow a little flavourless. The eighteenth century was a great period for letter-writing, and political news was a constant topic of correspondence. The interest centred on men rather than on principles. These great ladies, when they wrote to each other or to their friends of the male sex, did not discuss causes. They were concerned with individuals, with the career of the gentlemen of their acquaintance. Looked at in this way, politics were, in the phraseology of the age, “vastly” entertaining.

When the rage for speculation came in, the ladies became ardent speculators. They exchanged confidences and congratulations over the great South Sea Bubble, before it burst, and hoped that “stocks were going on prosperously.” Mrs. Molesworth, writing to Mrs. Howard (Countess of Suffolk), in June, 1720, says—
“To tell you the truth, I am South Sea mad, and I find that philosophic temper of mind which made me content under my circumstances, when there was no seeming probability of bettering them, forsakes me on this occasion; and I cannot, without great regret, reflect that for want of a little money, I am forced to let slip an opportunity which is never like to happen again. Perhaps you will think me unreasonable when I tell you that good Lady Sunderland was so mindful of her absent friends as to secure us a £500 subscription, which money my father had laid down for us, and it is now doubled; but this has but given me a taste of fortune, which makes me more eager to pursue it. As greedy as I seem, I should have been satisfied if I could by any means have raised the sum of £500 or £1000 more, but the vast price that money bears, and our being not able to make any security according to law, has made me reject a scheme I had laid of borrowing such a sum of some monied friend.”
The ladies got their men friends, with whom they corresponded copiously, to gamble for them. Thus the Duke of Argyll, in 1719–20, acted for the Countess of Suffolk, and invested for her a large sum of money in the Missouri scheme, informing her from time to time how things were going.
The taste for speculation was worse than the taste for French fashions, which was decried by Lord Chesterfield.
“I do not mean to undervalue the French,” he writes. “I know their merit. They are a cheerful, industrious, ingenious, polite people, and have many things in which I wish we did imitate them. But, like true mimics, we only ape their imperfections, and awkwardly copy those parts which all reasonable Frenchmen themselves contemn in the originals. If this folly went no farther than disguising both our meats and ourselves in the French modes, I should bear it with more patience, and content myself with representing only to my country folks that the one would make them sick and the other ridiculous; but when even the materials for the folly are to be brought over from France too, it becomes a much more serious consideration. Our trade and manufactures are at stake, and what seems at first only very silly is, in truth, a great national evil and a piece of civil immorality.”
The great lady of the eighteenth century is always, so to speak, in full dress. She seems to live in and for society, to be the leading figure in a great show. It is difficult to think of her except with a train and an elaborate coiffure, with her fan and smelling-bottle and her grand manner en princesse. The elaboration of life in the fashionable world, the affectations of speech and manner, and the imposing costumes surround her with an air of artificiality. Though she might be an ardent politician or a brilliant wit, though she might achieve fame in the world of letters, she lived in a narrow circle. The great social movements of the country were as nothing to her. The history of the classes below her own had no meaning for her mind. Court intrigues, political changes, were events of moment; they were part of her world; she knew no other. Her outlook was limited to personal interests and ambitions. The accident of birth gave her a part to play in the affairs of the world. And she played it like a great lady, whose proper business is pleasure. She flirted, intrigued, and cajoled; suffered herself to be alternately flattered and neglected when she wanted a place at court or to worm out some political secret for a friend. But of the healthy, broad interest which regards the politics of to-day, both home and foreign, as the history of the morrow, she was generally devoid.

The great lady of the eighteenth century, unless she happened to be gifted with exceptional breadth of view, was indifferent—often contemptuously indifferent—to matters outside her own fashionable circle. Her education and the temperament of the age fostered this feeling. She had not the domestic responsibilities of women of a lower grade, or of great ladies of former times. In their place she was offered the distractions of society. One by one her duties had fallen away from her. Domestic occupations did not form part of the rôle of a great lady then any more than at the present time. The altered conditions of life gave her leisure; the increase of luxury begat a distaste for exertion. There was a great deal of licence of manners allowed to women, but little real freedom. They could not venture out of the beaten track without incurring ridicule, and possibly insult. In all the relations of life they were made to feel they were dependent beings. As daughters they had the inferior portion, and no profession but marriage. As wives they had nothing at all of their own, not even their children—a condition only remedied late in the present century. But the lack of all interest in their children, which was said to be a characteristic of the French nobility, was not so marked in England. In France it was considered very bourgeois to be surrounded by a family. Husbands and wives commonly lived independent lives. “Une mariage uni devient une anomalie dans le grand monde, un manque de goût.”
It was the attitude in which women were regarded that affected their position more than the actual existence of repressive or deteriorating customs. And to public opinion the great lady was both more susceptible and more subject than other women, for she lived with all eyes upon her. Without a great deal of moral courage she could not step out of her bounds or revolt against the conditions of her life. A narrow mental horizon, a cramping education, united with wealth and high place, were not favourable to the evolution of women, morally or intellectually. In the eighteenth century women moved in a circle, from the meshes of which they were not freed until the present century had run half its course.

With all the elaborate airs and dress which prevailed in the eighteenth century there was a coarseness of taste and behaviour which is in odd contrast to the exaggerated politeness affected by beaux and élégantes. There seems a good foundation Walpole’s description of the gaiety of the women as “an awkward jollity.” The diversions of the great ladies read strangely to our modern ears. What would be thought now of dukes and duchesses going about London with their friends in hired vehicles to see the sights? But in the spring of 1740, the Duke and Duchess of Portland organized a jaunt (as one of the party described it) to the City to see the City show-places. There were four ladies and four gentlemen, and they set out at ten o’clock in the morning in a couple of hackney coaches, made a comprehensive tour, and wound up by dining at a City tavern. “I never spent a more agreeable day,” writes one of the ladies of the party.

The fashionable diversions, balls and routs, were repeated over and over again at every watering-place.
“Pleasure with an English lady is a capital and rational affair. A party at Bath is perhaps the fruit of six months’ meditation and intrigue: she must feign sickness, gain over the servants, corrupt the physician, importune an aunt, deceive a husband, and in short have recourse to every artifice in order to succeed, and the business at last is to get fully paid for all the pains that have been taken. Pleasure is so much the more attractive to the English women as it is less familiar and costs them more to obtain. Melancholy persons feel joy more sensibly than those who are habituated to it.'
Amusements had no background of broad general interests. It was inevitable that their effect should be enervating. Some fresh zest was wanting, and it was found in a licentiousness of manner, just as flavour was added to conversation by doubtful anecdotes. A phrase in general use was “demi-reps.” It was the fashion to abbreviate words, and “rep” was commonly used for “reputation,” a thing in constant danger of being lost or destroyed at tea-tables. Walpole, writing in the last quarter of the century, notes with pleasure and surprise the unusual occupations of some of his fair friends, who busied themselves with carving and decorative work to adorn the interior of their houses.
“How much more amiable,” he says, “the old women of the next age will be than most of those we remember who used to tumble at once from gallantry to devout scandal and cards, and revenge on the young of their own sex the desertion of ours. Now they are ingenious. They will not want amusement.”
The great ladies of the eighteenth century sadly wanted amusement, for they had nothing else to fill up their time. It was not fashionable to be philanthropic, to start societies for the propagation of new social creeds. And there were not nearly so many diversions. There was no fishing in the Norwegian fjords in the summer, no autumn shooting-parties among the Scotch moors, no winter trips to the Riviera. At Bath, Tunbridge Wells, and other spas whither the fashionable world resorted, the social round was only varied by the bathing and drinking. The bad state of the roads often afforded diversion to the young, and many a merry mishap befell parties returning from festivities in the country. It certainly added to the excitement of a ball to know that there was every probability of being overturned on the road, or having to ford a stream swollen by the rain. The vivacious Elizabeth Robinson (afterwards Mrs. Montagu) describes how greatly she relished a break-down of the carriage on the return journey after a ball in the country.

The highwaymen who haunted the outskirts of London lent a melodramatic colour to all assemblies after dark. Even in broad daylight people who had anything to lose traversed unfrequented roads with fear and trembling. Certainly these conditions of social life averted the danger of monotony.
Looked at from another side, the great lady of the eighteenth century bears favourable comparison with the great lady of modern times. She was a more distinct individual influence in society than her successors. And yet neither then nor later had we salons comparable to those in Paris.

“Il n’y a pas à Londres comme à Paris des bureaux de femmes de bel esprit. Les auteurs anglais ne consultent pas les femmes; ils ne mendient pas leurs suffrages. Les affaires publiques intéressent le beau sexe anglais, mais il ne s’ingère pas de décider entre les intérêts de l’opposition et de la cour. Les femmes dans le monde, ne parlent ni de guerre, ni de politique, pratiquent leur religion et ne discutent point des dogmes. En général les femmes anglaises sont douces, modestes, et vertueuses.
But there were notable society leaders, such as the ladies who founded Almack’s Club, some of whom, like Lady Molyneux, were beauties who set the fashions. Almack’s, which was opened in 1765, was a club for both sexes, on the model of the men’s club at White’s. Ladies nominated and elected the men, and the men chose the ladies. The founders were Mrs. Fitzroy, Lady Pembroke, Mrs. Meynel, Miss Pelham, Miss Lloyd, and Lady Molyneux.

Better known to after generations are the names of the beautiful Duchess of Devonshire, the Duchess of Rutland, Lady Mary Chudleigh, the sisters Gunning. Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu, whose most intimate friend was the Duchess of Portland, collected the wits and brilliant talkers, and made Montagu House a rallying-point for all that was most attractive in society. The Countess of Suffolk was at one time the centre round which court gossip revolved. Lady Caroline Petersham kept up the pace with her frolics and jaunts. There was the more strictly political set, who were perpetually discussing the action of Ministers, and the probable effects on themselves and their friends. The ladies in this set, impelled largely by personal motives, were as keen about political moves as any party wire-puller.
“Our ladies are grown such vehement politicians that no other topic is admissible,” writes Walpole in 1783, the year of the memorable Westminster election. He complains that
“politics have engrossed all conversation and stifled other events, if any have happened. Indeed, our ladies who used to contribute to enliven correspondence are become politicians, and, as Lady Townley says, ‘squeeze a little too much lemon into conversation.’”
There was a good deal of acrimony imported into the atmosphere of political circles, partly because of the strong personal element pervading all politics. The weakness of eighteenth-century society was its narrowness. It cared nothing, comparatively speaking, for large general questions. The literary set discussed books and authors, but society in general did not care very much about literature. A new poem or a new romance were matters of interest because new; it was the correct thing to show acquaintance with the latest productions in verse or prose. Politics absorbed a great many in the fashionable world, but chiefly on the ground of personal interest. Society lived in a kind of mental stays.

The great ladies of the eighteenth century do not seem to have thought of work as a distraction when pleasures began to pall. They would have been bored to extinction at the idea. The worship of work is a characteristic of the nineteenth century. Those who do not work for profit work for the sake of the occupation, at some self-imposed task. The great philanthropic current, using the adjective to describe all forms of social amelioration, has drawn into its stream numbers of recruits from the so-called leisured classes. Indeed it is the members of this class who largely carry on works of general usefulness. England has become the country of volunteers in the public service.

The eighteenth century worshipped idleness. It looked upon labour as ignoble. This view of life had its effect on the bringing-up of girls in the higher ranks. They were bred to idleness as their proper vocation. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, writing to her daughter, Lady Bute, in 1753, about the education of the Countess’s daughter, says—
“I could give many examples of ladies whose ill-conduct has been very notorious, which has been owing to that ignorance which has exposed them to idleness, which is justly called the mother of mischief. There is nothing so like the education of a woman of quality as that of a prince: they are taught to dance, and the exterior part of what is called good breeding, which if they attain, they are extraordinary creatures in their kind, and have all the accomplishments required by their directors. The same characters are formed by the same lessons, which inclines me to think (if I dare say it), that nature has not placed us in an inferior rank to men, no more than the females of other animals, where we see no distinction of capacity; though I am persuaded that if there was a commonwealth of rational horses (as Dr. Swift has supposed), it would be an established maxim among them that a mare could not be taught to pace.”
The life of a great lady in the eighteenth century is well reflected in the contemporary literature. The satires of poets, the strictures of moralists, the raillery of wits, bring before us the social side of the period in numberless ways. A lady who was not a politician or a blue-stocking killed time by rising late, spending several hours over an elaborate toilette, and preparing herself for the gaieties of the evening. The eighteenth century was in some respects a period of inanition. The formalism which pervaded its literature was seen in another aspect in the social life of the age. There was a general want of the sympathetic spirit. Each circle in society lived shut up within itself, not knowing, nor caring to know, how the rest of the world went on. The narrowness of this attitude told more strongly on the wealthy classes, who had not the stimulus of being obliged to make an effort for the satisfaction of any desire. Social progress, as a recent writer has observed, is not the product of the intellect, but is due to the altruistic spirit. This spirit was asleep in the eighteenth century. In previous centuries there had been more progress with fewer opportunities. During periods of unrest women’s energies were called forth to cope with difficulties which a later civilization smoothed away. Family life, even for great ladies, offered scope, in times past, for the constant exercise of activity in the discharge of functions which lapsed in more refined ages. The leisure which had been painfully won in the progress of civilization the women of the eighteenth century knew not how to use. They dallied with trifles, yawned out of sheer vacuity, invented wants to pass the time, were by turns elated and vapourish, and affected sentiment for the sake of excitement. There were servile imitations of French manners as well as fashions, and neither were successful. Instead of progressing to a wider life, society turned off into a sidewalk of artificiality and moral inertia.

Compiled from sources in the public domain.

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Smiles & Good Fortune,
It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

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